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Rojo Mexicano/Mexican Red: International Colloquium on Cochineal

Rojo Mexicano/Mexican Red: International Colloquium on Cochineal in Art Palacio de Bellas Artes and ENCRyM, Mexico City, Nov 11-14, 2014

Reviewed by Elena Phipps

campo carmin NL

Image: Campo Carmin, Morelos Mexico. Field of Nopal cactus for cochineal. Photo Credit: Elena Phipps

Organized by the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Secretary of Culture of Morelos, along with Georges Roques, this conference brought together scientists, art historians and conservators to talk about the subject of cochineal red dye and its use in artworks from the Americas and Europe. Several of us spoke about the history and origins of the colorant in Mexico and other parts of the Americas, grounding the discussion in the cultures of the Americas. Alejandro de Avila spoke about the biohistory of the insect, its origins and cultivation, discussing the ecological zones that fostered the development of a cluster of animal and plants in Mexico that formed the basis for early civilization, including beans, bees, cotton, chile, and cochineal. The linguistic origins were also explored as cultural significance in art and ritual developed. Ana Roquero, dye specialist from Madrid, presented the stages of its use and subsequent methods of experimentation in Europe as it entered into the textile industry. Carlos Marichal, professor of economics in the Colegio de Mexico, presented the practical matters of the shipments of the special dyestuff, the structure of the markets and distribution in the 16th -18th centuries, the finance and organization of the Spanish Crown and the rea- sons for its growth as a commercial product, and its ups and downs throughout the Colonial enterprise.

A major focus for the conference was the interest in the use
of cochineal in European and Colonial paintings, and many of the most respected and experienced scientific researchers presented their work on the refinement of analytical techniques and the history and role of cochineal in artworks according to their areas of expertise, including Marco Leone from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Barbara Berrie from the National Gallery (Washington, D.C.) Jo Kirbey, National Gallery (London), and Ari Wallart from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Interesting discussions on the techniques of analysis of the cochineal lake, in its pigment form was accompanied by extensive presentation on the historical methods for its manufacture. The production of the painters red lake pigment from the shearings of dyed and undyed cloth became an exciting aspect which could for some be seen
in microscopic cross-sections, while for others shows up in detection of sulfur (indicating the presence of wool). Some scholars examined the use of cochineal in pre-hispanic and Colonial period codices and documents, including the recipes for their production as described in the work of 16th century manuscript of Bernadino Sahagun .

Part of the conference was held at the National School for Conservation, Restoration and Museography (ENCRyM) and we had the brief opportunity to view the lab- oratories. Two faculty members, Lorena Román and Javier Vázquez presented their work on the conservation and scientific testing of Mexican artworks ranging from the famous so-called “Huipile of Malinche” made of feathers, silk, cotton and wool as well as other 19th and 20th century textiles. Javier spoke about the examination and restoration of an early 16th century retable with beautifully preserved areas of color, notably cochineal used extensively in the depictions of the draperies and garments of the saints, the Virgin and even God himself.

We began the conference with a visit to Morelos, to a cochi- neal cooperative enterprise established by a group of women from the region, that had focused on sustainability in cultiva- tion practice. Campo Carmin is a center for cochineal production and serves as a center for teaching and training in sustainable practice.

The overall conference touched on many areas of cochineal— its history and use. Future plans for potentially two exhibitions in Mexico are being developed—one to examine its use in textiles, the other on its impact in European art.